Metro, Column, Boston

Dealing With The Loss Of Long Island

It was just their luck. Not only was it raining, but the cold wind hit the faces of hundreds of people as they climbed onto the Boston police boats at about 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, with no indication of where they were going.

These people were told that they could drive off the island, but would not be allowed to return. In a matter of hours, the lives of everyone—including those who work on the island, as well as nearly 700 people who are homeless—were turned upside down.

The bridge linking Long Island to Moon Island and the mainland was irreversibly judged unsafe, according to The Boston Globe. The idea that suddenly on a late Wednesday afternoon in October, the bridge was too dangerous to use and everyone had to essentially run for their lives seemed ludicrous.

The dilapidated state of the Long Island bridge is one of the worst-kept secrets in Boston—something evident to anyone who has driven over the creaky structure, or the thousands of commuters on ferries who pass under it each morning. There had been rumors of the bridge closing that go back to February, but no serious evacuations plans had been executed.

More than 500 of the most vulnerable people in Boston—including the homeless, drug addicts, and ex-cons—were affected by the forced evacuation of Long Island. The bridge also served as a link from Boston to the island that hosts the city’s largest homeless shelter and program for recovering addicts.

What is the city going to do with the hundreds of homeless now displaced on the streets of Boston? As winter approaches, we know that the issue of the Long Island bridge and the homeless population is near the top of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ‘09’s list. Walsh pledged he would restore the bridge, but that process could take as long as five years. For now, the homeless are being sheltered into a former fitness center in the South End, where the people sleep on pillow-less cots in a tightly-packed gym, while city officials seek a more permanent solution to the loss of about one-third of the city’s available beds.

When Walsh took office, he was made aware that the 63-year-old bridge was breaking down, but hoped it could be used for a few more years while the city planned a restoration, according to The Globe. But over the years, the city has been forced to tackle a serious question: Is the bridge worth saving?

Former mayor Thomas M. Menino long supported Long Island, as it was one of the few locations that could adequately shelter many of Boston’s homeless and some of the other programs that called the island home. Other opponents argue that the city should look for less costly alternatives, with the estimated reconstruction of the bridge nearing $80 million.

Despite the plans for the future, the state of the bridge was in such a critical condition that Boston needed to do something. Bridges are typically built to last for more than 50 years, and the Long Island bridge has been renovated at least seven times since 1990. If the city did not act, then the bridge could have collapsed at any moment—similar to the infamous I-35W Mississippi River bridge collapse in Minnesota, which killed 13 people and injured 145 in 2007. With a potential Olympic bid in question, Boston would not want safety concerns to be a prominent issue.

If there is a silver lining to the closing of the Long Island bridge, it’s that the fundamental challenge of how the city takes care of its most vulnerable residents is now in the open. The number of homeless individuals in Massachusetts is at a record high, and the issue is now more prevalent than ever as the city’s largest shelter is closed and 700 homeless are now walking the streets in Boston. It is now up to Walsh and other Boston officials to find a more permanent home for them.

Featured Image by Huifeng Qian / For the Heights

October 22, 2014